Little Miss Sunshine

Opens at Guild 45 and Pacific Place, Fri., Aug. 4. Rated R. 101 minutes.

A contemptible would-be comedy that had them in stitches at Sundance this year (where it sold to great fanfare for $10 million), Sunshine portrays anyone not cool enough to attend Sundance in contemptuous terms. It belongs to the genre of what might be called flyover ridicule: All those people living below, as we fly our private jets to Park City from the coasts, who'll never appreciate indie cinema, who are content with their ugly homes and drab dreams, who participate in tacky JonBenet Ramsey–style child beauty pageants—wouldn't it be hellish to live among them? Which is precisely where Sunshine plunks us down, among the Hoover clan, which consists of a failed motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear), his sensible wife (Toni Collette), a drug-addict grandpa (Alan Arkin), a Nietzsche-worshipping teen son (Paul Dano), and a 7-year-old aspiring beauty queen (Abigail Breslin). The movie imagines that our only benchmark of sanity is a suicidal gay Proust scholar (Steve Carell) forced along on the VW bus road trip to the big pageant because his sister (Collette's character) must prevent any further wrist slitting.

Let the hick-bashing begin! Meet the porno-loving cop! Gasp at the freakish beauty-contest moms! Gawk at the strip-mall naturalism of Amway America, self-help seminars, and delusional losers! In Sunshine's patronizing pageant, we have no choice but to ride along with the Hoovers; the movie imagines that their vulgarity is endearing, a defense against an even more vulgar roadside reality. It divides the world into two classes: those who think it's hilarious to watch people push-start a VW microbus (the movie's running gag), and those who've actually done it. What Sundance snickerers can't understand is that you push out of necessity; you push because you don't have the money to fix your car. It's not funny. It's real life.

Finally, Sunshine's condescension gives way to outright hostility at the California pageant, which ends in a jaw-dropping musical number. Again, bad taste is supposed to be a defense against bad taste. Breaking his vow of silence, the teenager says of his sister, "I don't want these people judging Olive." By that time, of course, Sunshine has already judged America, which will swiftly return the favor. BRIAN MILLER

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